Writers in the Storm

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September 19, 2016

Conference Subtext: Watching the Pros and Learning From Them

Angela Ackerman

jackie_and_angela_wwcConferences are full of opportunities to learn, network, and grow. This summer I attended a local 3-day event called When Words Collide, which is a conference for writers and readers. Over 700 people attended, and every hour there were many different craft, marketing, industry, and genre-specific presentations to choose from. A fantastic event!

As a writer, I soaked up the learning sessions. But as a professional author, I also paid attention to conference subtext, watching how other authors, presenters, keynote speakers, and booksellers interacted and carried themselves to be successful in their roles.

Going From Writer to Author: Hello, Learning Curve

Once you start thinking of your writing as a career, you juggle more hats. At conferences, you might teach workshops, attend book signings, participate in author meet-and-greets, or give inspiring keynote talks.

No one really talks about the learning curve as one adapts from writer to professional author, but boy, it’s there. We have so much to learn. Watching what others do can really help us. So with that in mind, here are some of my conference observations.

What Makes a Powerful Keynote

This conference had a panel of keynotes, so 5 speeches total. What an opportunity to deconstruct what made each work (or not). Common elements: each talk inspired in some way, shared a personal story of overcoming adversity tied to writing or publishing (that the entire audience could relate to), it didn’t sugar coat the hard stuff and it demonstrated that perseverance and self-belief are key. The speeches also conveyed optimism and shared a love for what we all do: write.

One speaker made a tactical error in his keynote by targeting two groups (teachers and self-published authors) and made statements about them that were off-putting. This ended up alienating a good portion of the audience as many happened to be members of one of these groups. So the lesson? Understand who you are speaking to and why, and stay away from opinions that may result in the audience feeling disrespected.

Presenters and Panelists Best Practices

I attended many panels and presentations (and participated in some, too). The best presenters were well-prepared, had slideshow presentations, knew their topic intimately (they didn’t read a script), ran sessions on time, and left time for questions. They also incorporated humor in a very natural way, which allowed everyone to connect through laughter. After the presentation was over, time was tight, but if someone had a follow up question, the presenter would exchange business cards with the attendee, and follow up later—very good form.

The best panelists were respectful of one another’s opinions even when they differed, they didn’t monopolize the discussion (as a panelist, it’s frustrating when someone does take over), they came prepared (sadly this is not always the case) and they stuck to the panel’s topic. They also allowed enough time for audience questions.

Successful Author-Reader Interactions

As a readercon, there were many opportunities for authors to interact with fans. At the mass book signing (80 authors), I was sitting next to national bestselling author Eve Silver, so I was able to see firsthand how she engaged each person who approached, asked them questions, made eye contact, and left each one feeling valued and special. (Watching her was great because I always feel like such a dork at signings, lol.)

Aside from the signing, authors who were really on point were those who always made time for readers (stopping in the halls to chat or answer questions, visiting during after-hours socials, etc.) They were approachable, available, inclusive, warm, and genuine.

Booksellers & The Bookstore

The bookstore was massive, with thousands of books on sale and it had a big community feel. Many publishers and organizations had tables featuring their authors' books, and often a reader would only know a book title or author, not the publisher. Even if it wasn’t a book from their house, all sellers made time to help them find the correct table.

Authors (both traditionally and self-published) milled about or helped man tables, so I saw lots of discussion over books and cover art, and invites to enter a draw or take a bookmark…but no hard selling. I think most are now savvy enough to know that just isn’t well received.

A neat tidbit I learned: never display bookmarks or business cards in a stack because psychologically people won’t want to disrupt the pile. So, fan it out and people are more likely to take one with them. Also, CANDIES, people. Put a jar on your book table. Everyone likes a candy to enjoy while browsing.

Interacting with Organizers & Conference Volunteers

With such a massive conference, organizers (all volunteers, no one was paid) had a lot of authors and presenters to juggle. I am in awe of the job they did. Everyone was very accommodating if you needed something, and they went out of their way to help authors who were respectful and genuine. One author I noticed was griping and complaining, and as a result, no one seemed incentivized to go the extra mile. But then it’s common sense to treat the organizers and volunteers with the respect they deserve, and not act entitled.

What are your conference experiences? What tips and tricks have you picked up? Let me know in the comments!

 About Angela

Angela AckermanAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as four others including the newly minted Urban Setting and Rural Setting Thesaurus duo. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop For Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. She loves connecting, so please say hello on twitter, facebook and instagram.

32 comments on “Conference Subtext: Watching the Pros and Learning From Them”

  1. Angela, I've seen lots of conference posts, but this one is the best - it covers the details and nuances others don't. I'm so with you on keynote speeches - I realized, reading this, that I've been stowing away my favorite things about speeches for when I'm asked to give one (a skill I may never have occasion to use!)

    You're not alone - I think everyone except the author with the huge line feels like a dork at signings.

    That conference sounds wonderful - going to check it out now. Thanks for the great post!

    1. It's funny, I have had enough experience now with different aspects of being an author that most of it I can navigate, but the book signings, being asked for an autograph, etc. it still sort of freaks me out in the sense that I'm like, They actually want an autograph...from me? I don't know if this ever goes away. It is such an honor to be asked for one, and somehow I don't quite feel worthy of that attention on some level, perhaps. Oh the head games we writers play on ourselves, I tell you.

      And yes, the conference is amazing. The organizers are unbelievable, there are no other words for them, and I can't even begin to describe my admiration for what they do each year for writers. If you are ever near Calgary, you must come!

  2. I just returned from Colorado Gold in Denver. It's my 4th year to attend, and this year I presented as well. You are spot on with the comments on keynotes and presentations - they ran the gamut and you could tell who the pros were by the audience interest and interaction. These are such a great place to meet and interact with other writers (ours wasn't a reader event), as well as professionals in the industry such as agents and editors. But, in the end, they're all real people and can be come real friends. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Absolutely! I know it is often hard on the budget, but conferences can just be amazing opportunities at all levels of development. I think it's important to research the conference and really understand what the focus is, so those opportunities are a good match. If it is a craft-centric event, is it more for beginner writers, or a range of proficiency levels? Does it lean heavily toward a specific genre? Or is it mainly the professional end of things, so more for published tracks looking to continue to grow their author career? Conferences aren't always one-size-fits -all.

  3. I love this post, Angela!

    It's easy to go to conferences and get lost in the wealth of information from sessions/panels/workshops that we don't (can't ??) look beyond the material being presented. But for those who can compartmentalize or who are at the point where they recognize that the lessons they need are not just in the content, conferences are a jackpot for learning.

    1. A few years ago I started doing this, not just at conferences, but also when I would attend half-day or full-day workshops. I knew that this would be my path (presenting), so in workshops I would make 2 sets of notes, one on the content, and one for the presenter & presentation. This helped me so much when it came to organizing my own workshops/slideshows, and allowed me to shorten the learning curve greatly. 🙂

  4. Thanks, Angela! This is a different view of conferences and much needed. Writers need to grasp BOTH how to attend a conference to glean the best tidbits to become authors AND grasp the attitudes they'll need when they become published. Readers and other writers love hearing the "inside story" that produced a publication, and this article provides ideas on how to share that story AND make fans in the process. Thanks!

    1. It really is so much about the attitudes, you hit the nail on the head. When you become an author and are directly interfacing with other professionals in the industry as well as your fans, it's about staying true to who you are, being authentic in all you do, but always applying this filter of professionalism at each step.

      One thing I see only occasionally is elitism (I'm published, so I know SO MUCH now, or I'm an editor/agent, etc.) and this is really important, because it really only reveals how little the person knows. There is always so much more to learn, so much more insight to gain. Experience is great and sharing one's experience is so valuable to others, but this is not necessary all-inclusive and will apply to all people and situations. Having an open mind is what allows us to continually grow and evolve. 🙂 True leaders are the ones who have this attitude. 🙂

  5. Such good advice here! I'm serving on the organizing committee for the 2017 California Dreamin' Writers' Conference (also a non-profit endeavor), and it's been a wonderful opportunity to see the conference experience and participants from yet another point of view. Professionalism is so important! I'll never again gripe about what was or was not included in a conference!

    And I do have one tip for signing authors that I learned from my days attending signings as a reader: be friendly and pleasant with the reader in front of you. I once spoke with a best selling author and got the title of her book wrong. She corrected me rather angrily and now, every time I look at her titles her scowl pops up in my mind! Readers have lots of choices--always be friendly!

    1. My hat is off to you for volunteering--you are a superhero! So much time and energy goes into putting together a conference. I have not been involved personally in helping to set one up, just to present at one and run panels, but when I look at all the moving pieces that have to be set up perfectly for a flawless result, it blows my mind. I can't stress enough the amazing job the folks at When Words Collide do each year. It's an award-winning event, and the growth has been astounding year over year. The fandom it has built is also amazing and I see the same people year over year fly in from all over the country. I hope yours is just as successful!

      That is such an important tip. I totally froze up in shock at reading what that best-selling author did when you got the title wrong! GAH, talk about unprofessional. You are absolutely right--readers have lots of choices, and that has never been truer than in our current industry's climate.

  6. Great insight! Thanks for these tips.

    I recall attending a large-scale book signing with many authors and watching for good practices and do-not-dos. It surprised me to see some authors sitting back, not smiling, and messing with their phone. That doesn't convey the message, "stop and talk to me about my book." It brought home that sense that when you're signing, you're always on. And the authors who had people stop and chat had a fully welcoming vibe -- sitting comfortably but forward, smiling and bright-eyed, engaged in conversation. I took note.

    1. Julie, this is right on the mark--at a signing you are always on. Showing you're bored by checking your phone is probably the worst thing you can do. This is probably a good seed for another post--all the things you can do while still seeming totally approachable.

      Regarding being "on" I think this also applies to attending a conference as a professional. If you are presenting, sitting on panels, leading a workshop, etc. then you really need to be on the entire time. People might come up to you at any moment and want to chat about your books, ask questions, talk about writing craft or the business of being an author, etc. While being "on" is mentally exhausting, it really is important to always be receptive to all conversation. You never know where it might go, what you might learn, or who you might connect with.

      I think this trickles down even as a conference "attendee" (learner). While you don't have to be "on" specifically, being open and receptive and starting conversations with other learners is such a terrific way to build your connections and find new writing friends for support and advice. We're really all in this together. 🙂

  7. Great info, Angela. I attended a conference in Denver a few years ago. Won't go back. Some of the speakers didn't stay on the topic, and didn't give a chance for questions. I asked the organizations questions but seldom got a clear answer. The When Words Collide conference in Calgary is fabulous. Speakers often make themselves available after their talk - so friendly and upbeat. And, each presenter - intelligent, experienced, and approachable. One of the best sessions are the slush pile. I learned so much from the comments the panel made on submitted pages. No wonder the conference has grown and become a 'must attend' event.

    1. That's too bad that you didn't have a good experience in Denver. I hope that perhaps the feedback to conference organizers for that conference helped them see the problems and it's something they are working to resolve.

      I think after you've experienced When Words Collide, the bar is set very high when we attend other events. They just do such an amazing job year after year. 🙂 And I am with you on first page readings as you can really spot the common flaws with openings after listening to them being read and the feedback. So helpful!

  8. This is my fifth year working on a small writers' conference. I have to laugh at the comment about presenters who monopolize the time. A few years ago I set up a panel consisting of a fiction author, poet, biographer, screenwriter, and playwright. They were asked general questions about process, research, or work habits, etc., each given a few minutes to respond. It became clear at the first question that one member was bent on selling his work and completely ignoring the timer and other panelists. I had to interrupt him at each question and firmly move to the next person. He NEVER got it.

    I now help organize another regional conference and this man's reputation is so poor he is turned down for participation, even if we need volunteers.

    Please treat other presenters and those authors you sit next to at signings with the respect they deserve. They put in long hard hours, too.

    1. I've run into a few of those, and it is such a shame. I don't think they realize the damage they do to themselves by acting this way. With the glut of promotion these days on social media, readers can spot a sell from a mile away, and they are immediately turned off. I think this is why marketing presentations at conferences are so important, because often authors just don't know how to get their book seen, or how to find their exact audience and connect with them in the right ways. It's not easy for anyone, so marketing workshops and talks that tackle this business side of authorship are pure gold.

      And as I said to Julie earlier, you are a superhero for giving your time and energy to helping with conferences. On behalf of all writers who benefit--thank you! 🙂

  9. Calgary? My oldest nephew lives in Calgary, so this is a real possibility, Angela. Thank you for condensing the "best of" conference practices here. Having been a volunteer at many, I always thank those who make my conference experience great.

  10. A very informative and interesting article, Angela. I only recently discovered your thesaurus books and have 3 on the way to me now, as we speak, oops, 'type'. 🙂 I am currently writing my third novel after indie publishing the first 2. I live out in the bush/country in Australia and that is geographically hindering my efforts to get my books 'out there', apart from e-books of course. I am a long way from the nearest big city, have children and a small farm to run including milk house cows, so I rarely get the opportunity to attend helpful conferences and the like. Your article made me feel like I was 'there'. Thank you.

    1. Hi Julie! I was in Australia just last year, and I loved it. I was actually there to teach in Melbourne, but afterwards hubby and I toured the outback and a few other places, as well as got out to the great barrier reef. I would love to come back sometime to teach again.

      I know that location can really impact one's ability to get to conferences. One thing to keep an eye out for is online ones. These can be terrific for supplying the kind of learning content you need, allows for interaction and chit chat, and it's easier on the budget. That might be a good option for you?

    1. It was so beautiful, but so huge. I'd need a few more trips to do a good job of exploring it! Here's hoping I am able to. 🙂

    1. I don't know how far away you are, but take this into consideration when it comes to this particular conference: When Words Collide is only $45 to attend for the whole thing. Mind-blowing, but they are not for profit, and all speakers, panelists, etc. are volunteers. And there's been some amazing speakers too--Diana Gabaldon, Brandon Sanderson, etc.

      And thanks for test driving one of our books--I hope you find them really helpful. 🙂

    1. It was great sitting next to you, Eve. You left a lasting impression on everyone who came over. 🙂

  11. A definite learning curve there...going through it myself, trying to figure it all out. Not easy!

    Great topic though. Think I will muse on this in my mondays muse blog column.

    Thanks much for this!

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